Thursday, September 17, 2009

Compulsive Chronicles #9: Solo Efforts

(Photo by Tyson.)

Compulsive Chronicles is an ongoing column for SPOKE(a)N(e) Magazine. Each month, I post supplementary material relating to the column on this page. This month, I discuss the perils and triumphs of solo albums.

Here are some of my favorite songs from artists who broke away from the band and released their own material:

1. Why Not Nothing? - Richard Ashcroft (The Verve)
I ain’t got time for your politics
or your masquerading Machiavellian tricks, good-bye
You know I ain’t got the time

It took me a little while to devote enough attention to his solo work. Old Boyfriend bought me the first one for my 18th birthday (along with some clipped interviews from magazines, which was thoughtful of him), and I’ll admit I didn’t give it enough attention then. I was busy diving into Ryan Adams, The Frames and the last Bush album. Not until 2006, when I officially started in on my book again, did I start playing him more often, at once aghast that I’d let the music sit on my shelf for five years.

It’s a high road on your own, you gotta learn the way you do
Take my advice, don’t let ‘em treat you like a fool
Hey, pain, I’m going to look you in the eye,
that’s when we started singing

On a trip back from Montana in 2007, I spun into Rockin’ Rudys when I passed through Missoula. While their music selection is not as spectacular as years past, I can’t very well not look at what they have. Both Keys to the World and Human Conditions sat in the used bin, and though I was also buying a Tracy Bonham album I didn’t know existed until then (Blink the Brightest), there’s tradition to follow. One must spend more money than originally planned while music shopping. The shops are dying, man — Support the cause!

“Why Not Nothing?” opens Keys to the World and it’s a massive, fantastic, defiant kick in the ass. I love the horns, the volume and the steadfast confidence.

Who the fuck are you when you take that mask away?
Friend, I don’t know, Oh where do we go?

I love The Verve, and I’d love if they stayed together long enough so that I could see them live, but I would be just as pleased to see Richard Ashcroft on his own. Whatever the band’s doing, I hope he also keeps doing his own thing. I cannot recommend him enough.

2. I’ve Seen It All - Björk and Thom Yorke (The Sugarcubes, Radiohead)
Dancer in the Dark has to be one of the saddest movies of all time. The year it came out, I heard all about how great and well-made it was supposed to be, and that despite her real-life crazy, Björk put on the performance of her life. The movie is all these things, but oh wow, does it hit you right in the gut. Unless you’re a sucker for punishment, it’s not for repeat viewing.

Strangely, the soundtrack (entitled Selmasongs) does not affect me in the same way. Although the songs feature prominently throughout the film, I could separate the two, including a long stretch in high school where I used to put on the music while I fell asleep. We’ll let someone else infer what that might say about me or my occasional state of mind.

What about China? Have you seen the Great Wall?
— All walls are great if the roof doesn’t fall

Thom Yorke makes a great duet partner, as also evidenced on PJ Harvey’s “This Mess We’re In.” Being only a casual Radiohead fan, I didn’t recognize his voice here at first. He sings in a very low and measured way, letting Björk do all the vocal gymnastics.

The sounds of trains morph into a drum beat and the orchestra is at once haunting and gorgeous. Though I own just three of her albums, I find Björk’s music fascinating. Even when I don’t love it, there’s always something surprising.

3. Wise Up - Aimee Mann (‘Til Tuesday)
I know it seems lazy to reference the Magnolia soundtrack when Aimee Mann has such an extensive back catalogue. Still, the set of songs used in that movie stand up as some of the best she’s ever done. Paul Thomas Anderson says she is “the greatest articulator of the biggest things we think about, ‘How can anyone love me?’ ‘Why the hell would anyone love me?’ and the old favorite, ‘Why would I love anyone when all it means is torture?’”

You got
What you want
Now you can hardly stand it, though

Her songs are aching and lonely, beautiful, and yet not always hopeful. There’s an edge of madness, and those are always the fun things to write about. Pick apart feelings, pick apart what we try so hard to push back, stare out into the world and try hard to not look so disheartened.

When I watched the movie — back when it took two VHS tapes to get through it all — I remember thinking that the only way these people’s problems might be solved was if the world came to a sudden end. The characters seemed so impossibly sad and screwed up, it was hard to know what they should do.

You’re sure
There’s a cure
And you have finally found it, you think
One drink
Will shrink you ‘til you’re underground

For as much as I like confidence, there’s nothing wrong with melancholy either. Sometimes the confidence only covers what lies beneath, and only sociopaths are above insecurity. For all the good that propping up ourselves will do, sometimes it’s best to wallow for a little while, reassess, and come out swinging another day.

4. To Try For the Sun - Lindsey Buckingham (Fleetwood Mac)
Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks will always be wired together in their own complicated way, forever inspiring and frustrating the other, even thirty years since the end of their relationship. On his 2006 solo album, Under the Skin, Lindsey revisits his past again.

We huddled in the derelict building
The gypsy girl and I
We made our beds together
With the rain and tears in our eyes

Sometimes I get bored by his tendency to draw out the guitar solos into long, meandering territory, but here, Lindsey goes back to the brisk finger-picking that should impress anyone. This song is both nostalgic and unwavering, accepting his history as what formed him today.

I don’t know that any of the good successes come without struggle, and we learn from every failure. It’s worth looking back on the times where we wanted everything, but had no idea how to get there.

And who will be the one
To say it was no good what we done
I dare anyone to say we were too young
We were only trying for the sun

5. Cheers Darlin’ - Damien Rice (Juniper)
I have a great affinity for the sounds of glassware used in songs. Whether in Ani DiFranco’s “Diner,” The Cardinals’ “Cherry Lane,” perhaps it provides a sense of immediacy, the feeling of being right there and experiencing the music as part of a community of listeners. In “Cheers Darlin,’” it comes as the encouragement of a marital toast, when we’re all supposed to give our well wishes.

I got your wedding bells in my ear
Cheers darlin’, you gave me three cigarettes
to smoke away my tears
and I die when you mention his name

I’ve always said that Damien Rice makes the sort of music that’s stab-you-in-the-heart good. He is a howl of loneliness and introspection, crashing through love lost and love never had at all. The songs sound so personal, yet so identifiable — How does one’s chest not seize just a bit while hearing them?

I should have kissed you
when we were running in the rain
What am I, darlin’ ?
A whisper in your ear? A piece of your cake?

When does the ache of “never meant to be” go away? I don’t know. Maybe that’s why some of us write or play music — We’re forever trying to figure it out. The messy inertia of minds, how the past informs the future, all these words meditating on what we mean to one another, we keep searching.

Honorable Mentions:
Teotihuacan - Noel Gallagher
(because I just can’t help myself)
What is this, you ask? Likely forgotten by everyone but the most fervent among us, this is Noel’s contribution to the first X-Files movie soundtrack. Played over the second half of the end credits, it’s entirely instrumental, features a lot of drum machine, and you can bet we all stayed to see his name roll across the screen. The X-Files is one of my favorite TV shows, and of course, I enjoy it when things I love overlap.

Candy - Iggy Pop and Kate Pierson (The Stooges, The B52s)
Kate Pierson’s voice gets stuck in my head about every time I hear it, and sometimes just thinking of this song or her band’s “Deadbeat Club” causes her to occupy by brain for a good day or two, on a loop. Could be worse, I suppose. At least I like hearing this song. And I’ve always liked Iggy Pop, even though I don’t own a lot by him. Lately, my main source of his songs is through videos on VH1 Classic.

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